Department of Transportation funds smart-growth groups

Published May 1, 2002

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) gives millions of dollars in grants each year to promote smart-growth in American cities. Although these grants are mostly given to government agencies, a large share of this money—perhaps several million dollars per year—finds its way into the hands of smart-growth advocacy groups that use the funds to lobby or “educate” the public in support of smart-growth policies.

The funds are given out under section 1221 of the 1998 transportation authorization act (TEA-21), in which Congress directed the USDOT to give $120 million through 2003 to states and communities for “Transportation, Community, and System Preservation” (TCSP) pilot projects.

Skewed toward smart growth

The TCSP program skews planning toward smart growth in several ways:

  • In a few cases, all or nearly all of the grant funds are simply passed on by the government agency to nonprofit advocacy groups.
  • In more cases, the nonprofit groups get a share of the funds to use for specific activities, such as radio propaganda campaigns favoring transit or smart growth.
  • In other cases, smart-growth groups are made the principal members of various advisory committees, giving them an inside track to regional and local planning.
  • In a few cases, smart-growth groups share membership on such advisory committees with more moderate groups, such as homebuilders, but the grants are still clearly oriented towards promoting smart growth.
  • In other cases, local governments applied for the grants and began planning for smart growth in their areas even without the involvement of nonprofit advocacy groups … just because the federal government was giving away millions of dollars for smart-growth planning.

Unfortunately, unlike EPA grants, it is difficult to calculate exactly how much money is finding its way into the hands of advocacy groups. EPA gives some of its grants directly to nonprofit groups, making it easy to get information about such grants. Because TCSP funds are given to state and local governments, which may or may not share them with nonprofits, data are more difficult to obtain. But some information can be gathered from the USDOT Web site.

How much, and where does it go?

In 1999 DOT gave out about $14 million in TCSP funds. That increased to $31 million in 2000 and $47 million in 2001. Since full proposals only for 1999 grants are posted on the DOT Web site, most of the following analysis is about those grants.

In 1999 DOT gave 35 TCSP grants totaling $14.2 million. Of these, about 32 grants of $13.4 million can be identified as being for smart growth. Here I am defining smart-growth to include projects emphasizing transit, bikes/pedestrians, or high-density or mixed-use developments. I also included a couple that emphasize the “transportation land-use connection” even if they didn’t emphasize non-highway modes of travel.

Judging from the full proposals posted for 21 of the 1999 grants, more than three-quarters of these grants specifically include “non-traditional partners,” meaning non-governmental groups. If we ignore universities, consulting firms (often included to assist with public involvement), and quasi-governmental councils, 15 of the 21 projects still include nonprofit, such as the Sierra Club.

Most of the proposals mention these nonprofits by name. Sometimes the groups will be on a steering committee and do not seem to get any funds. But many of the proposals clearly intend to give some or all of the funds to these groups.

Here are the best-documented examples.

In Salt Lake City, the Coalition for Utah’s Future is the lead group doing Envision Utah, which received $425,000. Although the governor’s office is technically the grant recipient, all of the money probably went to this smart-growth advocacy group. Envision Utah received another $205,000 in 2000. Ironically, one of the other funded proposals calls Envision Utah a “top-down planning program.”

The Ada Planning Association is the “fiscal agent” and one of the two “primary leaders” for a $510,000 grant to promote smart growth in Boise, Idaho. While this grant says it will not do “top down” planning as was done by Envision Utah, one of its primary objectives is to “overcome the major barriers currently impeding compact development.”

In Centre County, Pennsylvania, a nonprofit called the ClearWater Conservancy is the lead group in a $750,000 project to plan high-density uses around a new interstate highway. The Centre County Planning Office is technically the grant recipient, but the Conservancy got most if not all of the money. I looked up the ClearWater Conservancy on the Web, but it has not yet posted anything relating to this project (the Web page says “coming soon”). So it is difficult to tell just what their orientation on transportation is.

In Oregon, the Lane Council of Governments received $600,000 for the Willamette Valley Livability Project. Most of this money was spent distributing a 16-page, anti-road, smart-growth propaganda pamphlet to 450,000 Oregon households. The pamphlet was written by 1000 Friends of Oregon and its allies. See for more about this publication.

In Seattle, the local MPO received $400,000 to promote transit-oriented development. The proposal says the MPO “will contract with 1000 Friends of Washington” to do radio ads, community forums, and community profiles. It isn’t clear how much 1000 Friends will get.

In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council shared in a $665,000 grant that aimed to “sow the seeds of public support for transit-oriented developments” (TODs). The grant explicitly described the Environmental Council as a “smart-growth” organization and stated it would use its share of funds for “TOD advocacy.”

Bluegrass Tomorrow is described as a “smart-growth advocacy group” that plays a major role in a $525,000 grant to promote smart growth in Frankfort, Kentucky. At first the proposal’s innocuous terms, and the claim Toyota and Valvoline both support Bluegrass Tomorrow, made me wonder if this “smart growth” was more like quality growth. But I looked at the Bluegrass Tomorrow Web site,, and there’s no question it is just the same old smart growth.

In Gainesville, Florida, a smart-growth group called Sustainable Alachua County (SAC) “will play a significant role” in a $150,000 project to promote smart growth. SAC has been active in local transportation planning and the project gives it an official inside track into the planning process. While the group probably does not get any money out of the grant, it gets to play a major role in designing the local transportation plan. As the grant proposal says,

“One of SAC’s roles in this grant will be to provide in-kind services as part of the project team. Such services will include performing quantitative assessments of the quality of the urban environment, such as measuring transit and pedestrian friendliness factors in sample traffic analysis zones of the community. For example, SAC Focus Team members will be used to measure building setbacks and ease of crossing the street in various locations that exhibit different development characteristics.

In these cases, it is apparent the local governments are using the nonprofit groups to do the advocacy work government agencies are not allowed to do. Government agencies are supposed to be politically neutral, and are generally not supposed to lobby or propagandize in favor of their specific agendas. By sharing grants with nonprofit advocacy groups, these agencies can get around such limits and use public funds to persuade people to support policies not in the public’s best interest.

Tipping the scales

A few grants appear superficially more balanced. A $275,000 grant to Johnson City, Tennessee, lists the Sierra Club and the local home builders association as being on a steering committee to coordinate land-use and transportation planning. The Sierra Club and some local conservation groups are listed in a $450,000 grant to promote smart growth in Raleigh-Durham, but so are local chambers of commerce. Still, both grants emphasize smart-growth policies.

Six grants are clearly oriented to smart growth but do not seem to give any funds or preference to smart-growth nonprofit groups. These include:

  • a land-use planning grant to Anchorage, Alaska;
  • a transit planning grant to San Francisco;
  • a visioning grant to Washington, DC;
  • a transit planning grant to Providence, Rhode Island;
  • a transportation-land-use planning grant to Charleston, South Carolina; and
  • a land-use planning grant to Charlottesville, Virginia.

The USDOT Web site posts only an abstract, not a complete proposal, for 14 of the 1999 grants and most of the 2000 grants. The abstracts usually make it clear the grants will promote smart growth, but they are not complete enough to mention whether any nonprofit partners are involved.

Grants given in 1999 for which we have only the abstract include:

  • a $225,000 pro-transit grant for Tempe, Arizona;
  • a $150,000 pedestrian-bicycle grant for Escalon, California;
  • a $182,000 community planning grant for Lee Vining, California;
  • a $480,000 transportation grant for Hartford, Connecticut;
  • a $450,000 smart-growth grant for Maryland;
  • a $48,000 transportation planning grant for Saginaw, Michigan that focuses on “pedestrian mobility” and “public transit”;
  • a $355,000 smart-growth grant for Lansing, Michigan;
  • a $600,000 “smart choices” grant for Kansas City, Missouri;
  • a $70,000 waterfront planning grant for Troy, New York;
  • a $195,000 smart-growth demonstration project in Cleveland, Ohio;
  • a $300,000 gentrification project for Dayton, Ohio;
  • a $500,000 “main street revitalization” project for Houston, Texas;
  • a $300,000 gentrification project in Martinsburg, West Virginia; and
  • a $365,000 smart-growth grant for Madison, Wisconsin.

I tentatively classify all of these as smart-growth projects except the Lee Vining, Troy, Dayton, and Martinsburg grants. The abstracts rarely mention partners; if they do, those partners are never named. More information about these grants might be available on the Web sites of the grant recipients, but I haven’t looked.

Advocacy partners abound

Partners are a part of every TCSP grant, if only because “Partnerships” is part V of the formal grant application. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the partners will be nonprofits biased toward smart growth, the fact that most of the planners submitting the grant requests are biased to smart growth certainly makes this likely. A few grants, such as a $177,000 grant to promote transit-oriented development in San Francisco, list only government agencies as partners. But these are in the minority.

In sum, only four of the 35 1999 grants do not seem to be about promoting smart growth, but without the complete proposals for these grants we can’t tell for certain.

All of these grants were given by the Clinton administration, but there is no evidence the Bush administration is doing anything different this year. The Secretary of Transportation is the administration’s token Democrat and a strong supporter of light rail who has promised smart-growth groups he will continue the previous administration’s policy of supporting smart growth.

Auto drivers should be outraged that Congress dedicates their gas taxes to groups whose aim is to increase congestion and discourage auto driving. Those of you who support the American Dream should work to eliminate TCSP from the next transportation authorization bill.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.

For more information …

The grant information described in this article comes from the following U.S. Department of Transportation Web pages: is a list of all grants given in 1999 through 2001; links to detailed information, including grant proposals in most cases, for 1999 grants; links to information, including abstracts but not usually complete grant proposals, for 2000 grants; is a press release for 2001 grants.